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Lessons From Toys R Us

By now you have all heard about Toys R Us (TRU) filing bankruptcy. I have been personally tagged several times on Facebook linking to articles about the bankruptcy (a couple former staff members have even hinted I should reopen Toy House now.)

Here are some things you need to know.

Image result for sad face giraffeFirst, this is a Chapter 11 Bankruptcy which is a reorganization type of bankruptcy. The giraffe isn’t going away. They aren’t closing all their stores and liquidating. That’s a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy. Toys R Us is banking on being able to restructure (and relieve themselves from) their debt so that they have the operating funds to continue competing in the toy and baby retail industries.

Second, David Brandon, the former Athletic Director at my beloved University of Michigan, is not the cause of their demise. (Many UM fans who hated Brandon for his poor job hiring football coaches want to scapegoat him for this, too. It’s easy, but wrong.) They were in trouble long before he got there.

Third, this is not a happy day for the toy industry. Even though Walmart surpassed Toys R Us in toy sales in 1998, TRU still does a tremendous amount of business and sells a tremendous amount of toys. There are many vendors in position to take huge losses in this ordeal. While the big guys like Mattel and Hasbro can likely afford it, many mid-tier and smaller vendors would be gone without TRU. That doesn’t help the rest of the industry.

Toys R Us is also important for new toy launches. The big-box discounters want tried and true. Without a large store willing to take chances on new products, there won’t be as many new and innovative products from existing companies.

A lot of people have opinions why Toys R Us is where they are today. Many want to blame Amazon. Still others want to blame the economy. I’ve read articles bashing their expensive new headquarters building, their lack of leadership, and the leveraged buyout by Bain, KKR, and Vornado.

One article wanted to blame TRU for spending too much on their stores and not enough on their website. Considering that TRU reported $912 million in e-commerce and $11.54 billion in total sales, that puts their online sales at almost 8%. (For comparison, Walmart only does about 3% of their total sales online, but that is skewed by grocery.) While 8% is impressive, it doesn’t justify taking money from the part of your business that generates 92% of your revenue and giving it to the part that only generates 8%. 

My opinion is that they didn’t spend the money on their stores the right way.

The real demise for Toys R Us started in 1998. That is the year Walmart surpassed them in total toy sales by dollar (McDonald’s Happy Meal beats them both in units sold.) 

Toys R Us chose at that time to take on the beast to reclaim their crown as king. They didn’t stand a chance. Walmart had more stores, deeper pockets, a larger advertising budget, better operational efficiency, and no need to make money on a category they saw as a commodity traffic-driver.

Seth Godin said it best. “The problem with racing to the bottom is that you might win. Worse, you might finish second.” Toys R Us finished second and we all lost because of it.

Toys R Us allowed Walmart to dictate to the world that toys are commodities, not the valuable educational tools every specialty toy store owner and every educator in America knows them to be. Toys R Us allowed Walmart to dictate that price was the only reason to buy toys. Once Toys R Us decided to compete on Walmart’s terms, they were done.

Hindsight being 20/20, the best move TRU could have taken back in 1998 was to reestablish their position as the “toy leader” and put their emphasis on the value of toys as educational tools, on the value of toys for promoting growth and development, and on the importance of choosing quality toys for your children.

If toys were thought of that way today, Toys R Us would have diminished the commodity role of the big box discounters and strengthened the toy industry as a whole, while firmly establishing themselves as the clear “toy experts” instead of a warehouse full of only toys competing with warehouses full of toys, hardware, clothing, housewares, and grocery. It would have been a win-win for them and the industry as a whole. They weren’t going to beat Walmart at Walmart’s game and likely never would catch Walmart in total sales (Walmart now has over five times as many stores.) But had they played to their own competitive advantage they would still be the king perceptually and the industry would be better off for it.

That is the lesson. Play to your competitive advantage. Play on your terms, not someone else’s. 

Right now the conventional wisdom is that Toys R Us owns too much real estate. Their stores are too big and costly. They need to close them down and sell off the real estate and focus online. I wonder how different the tune would be if back in 1998 they decided to make their stores more friendly and welcoming, filled with toy demos and play areas. What if they turned their stores into educational meccas offering classes on parenting, programs for preschoolers, and events that drew traffic? (According to this article, that is a little of what they are trying to do.) Instead they turned their stores into brightly lit warehouses with minimal staff and an entrance that makes you feel like a common thief just walking through the door.

Real estate is only an asset or liability depending how you use it.

There is still a chance for Toys R Us to turn the ship around. But they need to sail into different waters. I know a little about sailing. If you know David Brandon, tell him to look me up.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS It may sound like I’m suggesting Toys R Us be more like an independent specialty toy retailer. Umm … Yes! They have a far better chance being successful in that playground than in the big-box-treat-everything-like-a-commodity-warehouse playground they’ve been playing in. They had it right in their Time Square store and oh so wrong in the 865 other locations.

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